John Constable, Clouds (1822). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; purchased through Felton Bequest 1938.
The English painter John Constable spent the summers of 1821 and 1822 painting clouds on Hampstead Heath in London with unusual intensity and application. It was an activity he called “skying”; it was deadly serious.
Constable considered painting a science that investigates the laws of nature. Every morning at the same time he would leave his lodgings and walk to Prospect Walk, his preferred spot on the heath from which to observe the sky.
“The scene around his folding seat,” wrote cloud historian Richard Hamblyn, “was like an outdoor manufacturing laboratory.” He had many phials of painting substances with which to capture his fleeting subject. And when each study was finished, he inscribed weather notes on the back: the direction and strength of the wind, the amount of precipitation. The images resulting from these skying sessions are hard to classify: are they finished works of art or preparatory studies?
Clouds, on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, is still startling: its elaborate gold frame announcing it — a slice of nature — as a great work of art. This is how the Victorian critic John Ruskin saw the sky: as a perpetually available spectacle of wonder to which we pay too little attention. For Constable the sky was an essential component of landscape painting: it was a landscape’s “key note”, he wrote, its chief “organ of sentiment.” Painters had to learn to get it right.
In 1937, a prominent meteorologist wrote to The Times: he had noticed that Constable’s skies were so accurate, so legible, that the artist must have known of the work of Luke Howard, who a couple of years earlier had accomplished the task of classifying clouds. Not necessarily, replied a correspondent: a close knowledge of skies is just what you would expect from someone who, like Constable, spent his childhood working on his father’s Suffolk windmill.
Constable certainly paid close attention to the particularity of a cloudy sky, the way in which each sky was both unique but also predictable in its underlying pattern. He noticed, for instance, how so-called “messenger” clouds close to the earth would move faster than the bigger cloud from which they had become detached, and how they were usually in shadow.
After undertaking his cloud studies, the skies in his landscape paintings (the blockbusters for which he is best known) became more believable, adding to the reality and drama of the scene (as they do in the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki one of a few artists who bear comparison). The skies introduce a particular temporal aspect to an image, for clouds tell us of impending conditions, or those that have just passed. Skies tell a story, though one that is only partly legible even to seasoned interpreters such as sailors, meteorologists or millers, who try to predict future weather from the clouds.
For romantics such as Constable, nature was a refuge. The sky moved him in a way comparable to that described by his contemporary Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote: “I love waves, and winds, and storms, / Everything almost / Which is Nature’s, and may be / Untainted by man’s misery.” It’s a disposition that is no longer tenable. One result of growing awareness of climate change means that we can no longer take such unalloyed pleasure in weather effects as a realm “untainted by man’s misery”.
Oil on paper on cardboard, 30 x 48.8cm